Part-time PhD: portfolio approach to an academic career

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This weeks post is re-published with permission from the Think Ahead team, and the author Melanie Lovatt (@melanie_lovatt). Originally posted on the Think Ahead blog.

Back in 2010 I excitedly told friends and family that I had decided to do a part-time PhD. “Part-time?” repeated a relative sceptically. “Well, how long’s that going to take you?” “Around six years!” I replied, with an enthusiasm that I suspected might desert me long before completion. But five years and nine months on, having passed my viva with minor corrections last month and about to start a lectureship, I can honestly say that doing my PhD part-time was the right decision for me. Here are some reflections on the process:

Why do it part-time?

There are many reasons why someone might want to study part-time, e.g. financial reasons, existing work commitments, or family responsibilities. Mine were largely financial. I was already working as an administrator at The University of Sheffield when I considered postgraduate research and was able to register as a staff candidate, where I paid no tuition fees but received no stipend. If you work at a university and are considering doing a PhD, it’s worth investigating if your institution offers something similar. It definitely worked out for me. As well as the huge incentive of paying no fees, I’m convinced already working in an academic environment secured me interesting and useful employment I might not otherwise have got, which leads me to my second point…

Doing paid-work alongside my PhD

Not having a stipend meant that I needed paid work alongside my PhD to pay the rent. For the first couple of years I stayed in university administration, which gave me valuable insights into the inner workings of academic life and ‘how things get done’ in a university. From there, I was fortunate to get a position as a part-time research associate (RA) on various projects in different departments. This was not without its challenges…

Getting up to speed with entirely different bodies of literature on subjects with which I was not already familiar was difficult. It also sometimes meant needing to juggle my time and other commitments around in order to meet deadlines, although this worked both ways. For instance I once switched to working full time as an RA for a month so I could submit a report on time, but then took the next month off in lieu to work on my PhD. Having supportive line managers helped with this.

Despite these challenges, working as an RA on projects alongside my PhD was overwhelmingly positive. It gave me experience of working in multi-disciplinary teams, applying my methodological skills to different fields, writing and publishing journal articles, and applying for grants. So, while it may have taken twice as long to get my PhD than if I had done it full-time, I was filling my CV along the way with the skills, experience and achievements that I needed in order to secure an academic position. Doing those other jobs also gave me some helpful perspective on my PhD, in particular steering me away from any misguided notion that my PhD would ever be perfect. (It isn’t, though nor would it have been even had I spent another six years on it.) As an RA, I frequently had tight deadlines where I had to submit a piece of work that I thought was good enough rather than perfect, and this definitely helped me when I approached the final stages of writing my PhD.

Maintaining enthusiasm

I once heard someone describe doing a PhD as ‘a slog’. He was talking about full-time study, so I’m not sure what term he would have used for a part-time degree. It’s perhaps not repeatable. It’s certainly the case that six years is a long time to sustain enthusiasm for a topic. I had a gap of five years between finishing my Masters degree and starting my PhD, and am relieved that I waited until I had come up with an area of research that I was genuinely interested in. I think my part-time paid work on other projects also helped to maintain my commitment to my PhD. Rarely spending more than three days a week on it meant that I never really got bored of it. Switching between my PhD and my paid work each week could be difficult, but on the whole I think it helped me to stay focused and make the most of the time I did have to spend studying.

Staying social

I’ve heard many people describe doing a PhD as an isolating experience. I actively worked to avoid this. As a part-time student I had no access to a permanent desk in the department, and so studied from home. This meant that, apart from my monthly supervision meetings, I was an infrequent visitor to the department. (This instilled in me a lingering insecurity that I was not a ‘proper’ member of the department. Consequently, convinced that staff would not remember me, I always felt compelled to remind people of my name, until the time when one lecturer, in obvious bewilderment and impatience said, “I know who you are! We’ve met several times!”). To try and redress this and feel like a member of the department, I attended as many departmental seminars as possible, and also co-convened a reading group. I am also lucky in that my fellow PhD students are a lovely, sociable bunch, and we have regular catch-ups over drinks where we share experiences and provide peer-support.

I do think I’ve been fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had, and if my part-time work had been merely to pay the bills rather than develop my skills as an academic, I’d probably have a very different perspective. Doing my PhD part-time worked well for me though, and it was definitely worth the wait.

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